Preview: Sunwolves v Waratahs

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The Waratahs face the Sunwolves this week looking for a valuable bonus-point win in the race to top the Australian Conference.

After 12 games Daryl Gibson's side sit tied on 34 points with the Brumbies, setting up an exciting run-in with the Waratahs returning from Japan to then take on the Hurricanes at home before rounding off the regular season with a trip to the Blues.

Neither of those last two games look easy, making maximum points this weekend therefore a priority as the Waratahs try and secure a sixth win in seven games.

If they do end up missing out on top spot in the Australian Conference or a wildcard place then their early-season stuttering will be to blame.

Even though Gibson was an assistant under Michael Cheika when the Waratahs clinched the 2014 title, a little adjustment has clearly been required.

Two wins in their first six games looked to have written the year off before it had even got going, but full credit to Gibson for finally opting to shift Israel Folau into midfield to fill the gap in quality left by Adam Ashley-Cooper's departure to France. Since that's happened the 'Tahs have been mightily difficult to contain.

That combination of Kurtley Beale and Folau was never allowed to really get going after Beale's season-ending injury but the move of Rob Horne off the wing back to a position he knows well in the centres is a both savvy switch and one that Gibson is now freely able to make following the return to New South Wales of Taqele Naiyaravoro.

Horne knows Folau well enough to get the best out of his talents, and Folau in fact is the only player in the competition to have gained more than 1,000m so far this season, making 320m more than the Sunwolves’ highest gainer Riaan Viljoen (684m).

Expect the Waratahs to go wide early but also to really attack the Sunwolves' line-out, which comfortably ranks as the worst in the competition with a success percentage on 74.8 percent.

That's with regular captain Shota Horie and second-row veteran Hitoshi Ono too, but both key players are absent this weekend along with Samoan fly-half Tusi Pisi, USA flanker Andrew Duratalo and star winger Akihito Yamada.

Yamada is arguably the biggest loss of all – having made 22 clean breaks so far this season, only one shy of league-best Joe Tomane (23).

All five players are certain starters for the Sunwolves when available, making their absense a real concern on a weekend where Mark Hammett's squad need to bounce back from their 66-5 thumping from the Brumbies last time out.

The Sunwolves have been written off before only to prove people wrong but the signs aren't good for Saturday, especially given that the Sunwolves have conceded a combined 101 points in their last two Super Rugby fixtures, both of which were against Australian opposition.

Players to watch: Fresh from scoring in Samoa's win over Tonga last weekend is Sunwolves lock Fa’atiga Lemalu. A versatile forward switching between the back-row and second-row, Lemalu packs plenty of power and was vice-captain for Samoa over the last month during their Pacific Nations Cup campaign. With Ono unavailable, the onus is on him to provide the Sunwolves with a steady platform.

Interesting selections for the visitors meanwhile include Matt Lucas ahead of Nick Phipps at scrum-half, with the youngster handed a rare start, and the return to the back-row of hard-working flanker Jack Dempsey. But all eyes on will be on Taqele Naiyaravoro, who grabbed a second ever try for the Wallabies on his second Test appearance late on against England and has been busy causing defences plenty of problems in the PRO12 and Champions Cup with Glasgow Warriors. A key figure for the Waratahs in 2014 and 2015, he'll be expected to make a big impact on his return.

Team news: Harumichi Tatekawa will captain the Sunwolves in the absence of Shota Horie. The Japan franchise will be without the star hooker along with Hitoshi Ono (suspended), joint-top Super Rugby try scorer Akihito Yamada (injury) and also fly-half Tusi Pisi.

Taiyo Ando comes into the back-row to take over from Andrew Duratalo, partnering up with Ed Quirk and Liaki Moli, while Naohiro Kotaki is named in the second-row to replace Ono.

Riaan Viljoen returns at full-back while Kaito Shigeno, fresh from scoring Japan's only try against Scotland this weekend, gets the nod at scrum-half ahead of Yuki Yatomi.

Meanwhile, Taqele Naiyaravoro starts on the wing for the Waratahs on his return to Super Rugby.

Matt Lucas has been handed the opportunity to run on as half-back this week, in what will be just his second start for the Waratahs since his Super Rugby debut for NSW in 2013.

Keen to add to their first few tries for the Tahs this year, determined flanker, Jack Dempsey and speedy winger, Reece Robinson are also back in the starting XV. Club captain Dave Dennis will shift to the number eight position. 

Form: In their first year the Sunwolves have avoided defeat just twice, beating the Jaguares in Tokyo back in April and drawing 17-17 with the Stormers in Cape Town. Aside from that there have been ten losses, the most recent to the Brumbies by a margin of 61 points only the second most damaging after that 92-17 thrashing by the Cheetahs. 

The Waratahs as previously mentioned are going for a sixth win in seven matches and have won three of their last four fixtures away from home, though two of those three wins were by only two points. 

Prediction: All signs point to a comfortable Waratahs win with the Sunwolves missing so many key figures and the race for the play-offs hoting up. Waratahs by 20.

The teams: 

Sunwolves: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Mifiposeti Paea, 13 Derek Carpenter, 12 Harumichi Tatekawa (c), 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Kaito Shigeno, 8 Ed Quirk, 7 Taiyo Ando, 6 Liaki Moli, 5 Naohiro Kotaki, 4 Fa’atiga Lemalu, 3 Shinnosuke Kakinaga, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Masataka Mikami
Replacements: 16 Futoshi Mori, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Yoshiya Hosoda, 20 Shokel Kin, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Ryohei Yamanaka, 23 Hajime Yamashita

Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Rob Horne, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Matt Lucas, 8 Dave Dennis, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Tom Robertson, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Paddy Ryan
Replacements (two to be omitted): 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Wycliff Palu, 21 Ned Hanigan, 22 Nick Phipps, 23 David Horwitz, 24 Tolu Latu, 25 Matt Carraro

Date: Saturday, July 2
Venue: Prince Chichibu Stadium, Tokyo
Kick-off: 14:15 local (05:15 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Aki Aso (Japan), Noriaki Hashimoto (Japan)
TMO: Takashi Hareda (Japan)